Story by Jim Hannaford and photography by Chris Riley
If you’re ever at South Beach Park, not far from the big pier in Fairhope, chances are good that you will encounter Chris and Tonya. He is a kind and friendly man in a wheelchair with some cameras, and she is his adorable sidekick, a remarkably well-behaved companion whose vest and mature demeanor identify her as a service dog.
When he was growing up on a different Eastern Shore – in Indiana alongside Lake Michigan – Chris Riley had a dad whose hobby was photography and a neighbor who even had his own dark room, so he was bitten by the shutterbug, so to speak, early on. He always liked taking pictures. But he had a photography instructor in high school who was not very encouraging, in fact pointedly telling Riley that he didn’t seem to have much talent for it. “So I threw the camera in the closet for a while,” says Riley. “But then the digital era came along, and digital cameras seemed like they would be easier.”
Thankfully for us, he gave it another shot. A big fan of live music, Riley started emailing concert promoters asking for media credentials so he could photograph bands. And soon, there he was on the front row or at stage-side getting his own up-close shots of performers such as Taj Mahal, Cowboy Mouth, Colonel Bruce Hampton, and his beloved Widespread Panic, which he says he has seen over a hundred times. “It was a win-win situation,” he says, “because I could work on my photography and get good access at the shows. ”This was before “the accident,” as he calls it. We’ll get to that shortly.
SHARING HIS WORK
These days, there are thousands of people who would disagree with his old teacher’s evaluation. They are the avid followers of Head Over Wheels Photography on Facebook and Instagram, which he created five years ago. His service dog Tonya, is a mix of yellow Labrador, golden retriever, and greyhound and is almost 10 years old. She is Riley’s constant companion, and indeed attracts even more attention than her master down at the park. “She’s trained in primary obedience,” he says. “She can pull me up an incline and she can pick up stuff for me, and she protects the house. But most importantly she’s a good buddy.”
She’s also the reason, really, that he takes so many photos down by the bay. Like other, more ordinary dogs, she needs her exercise. “I was bringing her down here to run, and I thought the sunsets were so pretty that I should go ahead and capture them and put them out thereon social media,” says Riley during an interview in his usual evening spot, a table next to the walking track near the shore’s edge. “And people seem to like them. ”On cue, almost as if it were prearranged, a stranger walks up,smiling and extending a hand in greeting. “Excuse me, are you Head Over Wheels?” “Yes, I am.” “Thank you. I do some photography, too, and I like your stuff.”
Riley estimates that he shoots photos of the sunset (as well as the surrounding people and scenery) at least 300 times a year. He started doing it after he moved here in 2012, so a conservative count puts the number at over 2,000 evenings. Sometimes the western sky fires up in vibrant, breathtaking colors. Other times it’s cloudy or overcast and there’s not much to shoot. “You just never know,” he says. He photographs plenty of other things besides sunsets. Among his own favorites of his many photos are a portrait of a wild mushroom shot from a low, upward angle and an arresting image of a woman twirling a lighted hula hoop. One of his most popular images, which has been widely shared online and has been used as a scenic background on local and national news broadcasts, catches a spectacular instance of lightning sparking up the twilight sky and illuminating the pier in the foreground. It’s a shot that surprised even Riley because he didn’t actually see it as it happened.He had his eyes on Tonya at the time,but saw a brilliant flash of light in his peripheral vision and instinctively snapped the shutter at just the right moment.
He was amazed when he saw it later while editing his photos on a computer. “I actually had to go in and tone it down a bit. It was so purple that it almost looked fake. It was seen by millions of people on ABC News Tonight,” he says with a touch of pride. Going for a last laugh and to try and get some vindication some 30 years later, he sent the image by email to his former high schoolteacher, but didn’t get a response. Riley says he’s happy that people like his photographs enough that they want to share them. “But I do not sell my photographs. Then it becomes a job. ”If you don’t see Riley down by the bay, he may be in the woods somewhere hunting (mainly for deer, ducks, or doves) or out on the water fishing. Yep, it turns out he’s an avid outdoorsman, despite being paralyzed from the breastbone down, and is actively involved in several groups, including Making Memories Hunt, that help to provide outdoor opportunities for people who have disabilities. That brings us to the accident.
A SUDDEN TRAGEDY
For 21 years, Riley worked for the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta. He started working events, including the infamous 1996 Summer Olympics that were tarnished by a shocking bombing incident in which 111 people were hurt. For a while he was part of an army of people who answered the almost endless calls coming in to 1-800-GET-COKE. They would field 100 to 150 calls a day, one after another, day after day, with almost every type of query imaginable. “I could write a book about that,” he says. But eventually he found his niche as sales representative for military accounts.
It was through his association with Coca-Cola that Riley found himself accompanying a group of disabled veterans on a skiing trip to Aspen,Colorado in 2009. Fate stepped in one night with zero warning and changed Riley’s life. Because of what is commonly called post-traumatic amnesia, he doesn’t remember the incident, but here’s what he has been able to piece together: “I was sitting up on a balcony and I guess one of my hands slipped and I went backward and fell. We were on the fourth floor, so that’s about 50 feet. I landed on a railing, which broke my fall.” Two off-duty nurses who happened to see him fall raced into action and were able to keep him stabilized until he could be airlifted to a hospital. “I’m very lucky to even be alive.”
His spinal column was severed in one place and partially severed in another. After five weeks in intensive care and in rehab for another five, he realized he would never walk again .He stayed with Coca-Cola as long as he could, but it turned out to be unrealistic. “I tried to work for about a year, but then they put me on long-term disability, and that’s when I moved here.”His parents, who lived in Fairhope back then, took turns traveling to be by his side and to help him with his rehabilitation and even relocated to Atlanta to be with him before they decided they would all be better off back in Fairhope. His father, Dick Riley, passed away in 2013.A caregiver visits him and Tonya for an hour each day. His mother, Betty, lives in the same neighborhood and continues to help out in ways that only a mother can. “She’s been there every step of the way and has never complained,” he says. “She is wonderful. I call her Mother Teresa.”
Using a pickup truck outfitted with hand controls and a specially designed hydraulic lift, Riley drives himself and Tonya down to the bay and back most evenings. He says having a routine is important for a person in his situation and, besides being great exercise for Tonya, it’s a kind of therapy for him, too. Even though he is a veteran sunset watcher, he can’t predict whether it will shape up to be a stunner. He does observe, however, that many folks decide the show is over once the setting sun sinks below the soft, blue horizon. But often that’s when the visuals start to intensify, so many of them are missing the best part. “After most everybody takes off, that’s when it gets good – the afterglow.”